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How Weather Patterns Are Shaping The Future Of CT's Coastal Rail Line

(AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

The railroad line that runs through Connecticut is 115 miles long, hugging the shoreline from New York to Rhode Island. Trains have traveled this corridor since the 1800's but now climate change could be threatening their future. The coast has been battered by several recent storms, including Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, effecting low lying sections of the rail system. Some say rising sea levels will cause repeated flooding of those and other areas. Jan Ellen Spiegel is an environmental reporter with the non-partisan news site, The Connecticut Mirror. Spiegel has just finished atwo part seriesthat examines the condition of the state's coastal rail line, what weather has done and what it could do in the future.


What type of damage have you found that the coastal rail system has endured, and is it related to climate change?

Talking specifically and irrefutably related to climate change, people are loath to do. So what we have to look at is the conditions that the track exists in. One thing we do know is a great deal of the track sits in areas that are designated flood zones by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That means if a storm comes or sea levels rise those will be areas that, in all likelihood, will get flooded. Let's take Bridgeport for instance. It's right along the edge of the river in the harbor and, in fact, the water runs right underneath the track. The track is on pilings. It's elevated, but the water goes right underneath it, and during Superstorm Sandy the water got high enough that it ran through the edge of the bank and onto the street and, yes, the track was dry, but you couldn't get to it.

One long term solution that came up in your reporting is to move the rail line inland, further from the coast.

That's a big ticket item. Someone said it was like moving the pyramids. It's very very hard to do, and very very expensive. We don't even necessarily have the money right now to keep the tracks and the trains in what they call a state of good repair. To then to think about picking up and moving it elsewhere is almost unthinkable.

I'll give you an example. In the Niantic area, the bridge was rebuilt there in the last couple of years. The track that runs into the bridge is literally feet from the water. When they rebuilt the bridge they kept it there. Well. are you then going to pick it up and move it again? That's very hard to do. How do you bring it inland? How do you buy up people's property? How do you change the corridor? How do you deal with other things that have been built into the infrastructure of this state over not just years, but a century and a half?

You mention that Metro-North and Amtrak have made some changes along the rail line. Were these improvements made with the idea of managing the effects of long term climate change to the coastal system?

No, I think the changes underway now are largely the "state of good repair" changes. It's been very clear for a long time that the system is not running the way it should. We've had accidents, we've had deaths, we've had bridges that have broken. Climate hasn't necessarily been included in some of the planing for those upgrades.

Plans for some of the new stations along the Metro-North corridor have been keeping climate in mind. For instance, there are plans for a new station in Bridgeport. They've made it pretty clear to keep that out of a flood zone.

On the other end, there have been a number of new stations worked on or upgraded on the Amtrak portion of the line as part of the Shoreline East Stations and some of those are smack in flood zones.

The Hurricane of 1938 gets mentioned several times in your series. Why did you bring that up?

One of the interesting things the Nature Conservancy did, they ran some modeling of the Hurricane of 1938. It was essentially a category 3 hurricane which cut right across the eastern part of Connecticut. The Nature Conservancy looked at what the hurricane would do to today's infrastructure, since it's been built up since then The results showed that about 130 miles of rail line would be flooded; five stations would be wiped out. If you throw in a little sea rise it would be even worse. It's worth looking at that area to see what it would do today because the rails still in the same spot. It hasn't moved. What's moving is the water It's definitely getting higher. We've seen very, very clear evidence of that.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.